Renée DiResta is the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.
One of the more remarkable artifacts of late-stage social media is the indelible presence of a particular character: the persecution profiteer. They are nearly unavoidable on Twitter: massive accounts with hundreds of thousands to millions of followers, beloved by the recommendation engine and often heavily monetized across multiple platforms, where they rail against the corporate media, Big Tech and elites. Sometimes, the elites have supposedly silenced them; sometimes, they’ve supposedly oppressed you — perhaps both. But either way, manipulation is supposedly everywhere, and they are supposedly getting to the bottom of it.
Many of these polemicists rely on a thinly veiled subtext: They are scrappy truth-tellers, citizen-journalist Davids, exposing the propaganda machine of the Goliaths. That subtext may have been true in last century’s media landscape, when independent media fought for audience scraps left by hardy media behemoths with unassailable gatekeeping power. But that all changed with the collapse of mass media’s revenue model and the rise of a new elite: the media-of-one.
The transition was enabled by tech but realized by entrepreneurs. Platforms like Substack, Patreon and OnlyFans offered infrastructure and monetization services to a galaxy of independent creators — writers, podcasters and artists — while taking a cut of their revenue. Many of these creators adopted the mantle of media through self-declaration and branding, redefining the term and the industry. Many were very talented. More importantly, however, they understood that creating content for a niche — connecting with a very specific online audience segment — offered a path to attention, revenue and clout. In the context of political content in particular, the media-of-one creators offered their readers an editorial page, staffed with one voice and absent the rest of the newspaper.
The rise of a profitable niche media ecosystem with a reach commensurate with mass media has been a boon for creators and consumers alike. YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have enabled sponsorships and ad-revenue sharing for quite some time — spawning a generation of influencers — but patronage opened additional paths to success. A tech blogger can start a podcast about Web3 with no infrastructural outlay, reaching their audience in a new medium. A Substack newsletter devoted to political history can amass thousands of subscribers, charge $5 a month, and deliver a salary up to seven figures for its author. Pop culture pundits can earn a living producing content on Patreon, and web-cam adult performers can do the same on OnlyFans. Even Twitter has launched subscriptions.
Whatever the kink — from nudes to recipes to conspiracy theories — consumers can find their niche, sponsor it and share its output. This ecosystem has given rise to people with millions of followers, who shape the culture and determine what the public talks about each day.
Well, their public, anyway.
The Rise Of Niche Propaganda
Like the media, the public has increasingly fragmented. The internet enabled the flourishing of a plethora of online subcultures and communities: an archipelago of bespoke and targetable realities. Some of the most visible are defined by their declining trust in mass media and institutions. Recognizing the opportunity, a proliferation of media-of-one outlets have spun up to serve them.
In fact, the intersection of a burgeoning niche media ecosystem and a factionalized public has transformed precisely the type of content that so concerns the persecution profiteers: propaganda. Propaganda is information with an agenda, delivered to susceptible audiences to serve the objectives of the creator. Anyone so inclined can set up an account and target an audience, producing spin to fit a preferred ideological agenda. Those who achieve a degree of success are often increasingly cozy with politicians and billionaire elites who hold the levers of power and help advance shared agendas. In fact, the niche propagandists increasingly have an advantage over the Goliaths they rail against. They innately understand the modern communication ecosystem on which narratives travel and know how to leverage highly participatory, activist social media fandoms to distribute their messages; institutions and legacy media typically do not.
Although the mechanics of who can spread propaganda, and how, has shifted significantly over the last two decades, public perception of the phenomenon has not. People discussing concerns about propaganda on social media frequently reference the idea of a powerful cabal composed of government, media and institutional authorities, manipulating the public into acquiescing to an elite-driven agenda. This misperception comes in large part from popular understanding of a theory presented by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.”
“Manufacturing Consent” proposed a rather insidious process by which even a free press, such as that of the United States, filters the information that reaches the public by way of self-censorship and selective framing. Even without the overt state control of media present in authoritarian regimes, Chomsky and Herman argued, American media elites are influenced by access, power and money as they decide what is newsworthy — and thus, determine what reaches the public. Chomsky and Herman identified five factors, “five filters” — ownership, advertising, sourcing, catching flak, and fear — that comprised a system of incentives that shaped media output.
Media “ownership” (the first filter) was expensive, requiring licenses and distribution technology — and so, the ecosystem was owned by a small cadre of the wealthy who often had other financial and political interests that colored coverage. Second, advertising meant that media was funded by ad dollars, which incentivized it to attract mainstream audiences that advertisers wanted and to avoid topics — say, critiques of the pharmaceutical industry — that might alienate them. Third, “sourcing” — picking experts to feature — let media elevate some perspectives while gatekeeping others. Fourth, fear of catching “flak” motivated outlets to avoid diverging from approved narratives, which might spark lawsuits or boycotts. And finally, “fear” highlighted the media’s capacity to cast people in the role of “worthy” or “unworthy” victims based on ideology.
Throughout the 20th century, Chomsky and Herman argued, these incentives converged to create a hegemonic media that presented a filtered picture of reality. Media’s self-interest directly conflicted with the public interest — a problem for a democratic society that relied on the media to become informed.
But legacy media is now only half the story, and the Goliaths are no longer so neatly distinguished. Technology reduced costs and eliminated license requirements, while platform users themselves became distributors via the Like and Share buttons. Personalized ad targeting enabled inclined individuals to amass large yet niche audiences who shared their viewpoints. The new elites, many of whom have millions of followers, are equally capable of “manufacturing consent,” masquerading as virtuous truth-tellers even as they, too, filter their output in accordance with their incentives.
However, something significant has changed: Rather than persuading a mass audience to align with a nationally oriented hegemonic point of view — Chomsky’s concern in the 1980s — the niche propagandists activate and shape the perception of niche audiences. The propaganda of today entrenches fragmented publics in divergent factional realities, with increasingly little bridging the gaps.
From Five Filters To Four Fire Emojis
As technology evolved and media and the public splintered, the five filters mutated. A different system of incentives drives the niche media Goliaths — we might call it the “four fire emoji” model of propaganda, in homage to Substack’s description of criteria it used to identify writers most likely to find success on its platform. 🔥🔥🔥🔥
In its early days of operation, Substack, which takes 10% of each subscription, reached out to media personalities and writers from traditional outlets, offering them an advance to start independent newsletters. To assess who might be a good investment, the company ranked writers from one to four fire emojis, depending on their social media engagement. Someone with a large, highly engaged following was more likely to parlay that attention into success on Substack. There is no algorithmic curation or ads; each post by the author of a newsletter is sent to the inbox of all subscribers. Substack describes their platform as a “new economic engine for culture,” arguing that authors might be less motivated to replicate the polarization of social media if they are paid directly for their work.
But the four fire emoji rubric inadvertently lays bare the existential drive of niche media: the need to capture attention above all else, as technology has driven the barrier to entry toward zero and the market is flooded with strivers. Getting attention on social media often involves seizing attention, through sensationalism and moral outrage. Niche media must convert that attention into patronage. A passionate and loyal fandom is critical to success because the audience facilitates virality, which delivers further attention, which can be parlayed into clout and money.
There is little incentive to appeal to everyone. In a world where attention is scarce, the political media-of-one entrepreneurs, in particular, are incentivized to filter what they cover and to present their thoughts in a way that galvanizes the support of those who will boost them — humans and algorithms alike. They are incentivized to divide the world into worthy and unworthy victims.
In other words, they are incentivized to become propagandists. And many have.
Consider a remarkable viral story from January 2023. Right-wing commentator Steven Crowder published a video accusing a major conservative news outlet (later revealed to be The Daily Wire) of offering him a repressive contract — a “slave contract,” as he put it, that would penalize him if the content he produced was deemed ineligible to monetize by major platforms like YouTube. “I believe that many of those in charge in the right-leaning media are actually at odds with what’s best for you,” he told his nearly 6 million YouTube subscribers. Audiences following along on Twitter assigned the scandal a hashtag: #BigCon.
Underlying the drama was classic subtext: Crowder, the David, pitted against conservative media Goliaths. And yet, the contract Crowder derided as indentured servitude would have paid him $50 million.
Sustaining attention in a highly competitive market practically requires that niche propaganda be hyper-adversarial, as often as possible. The rhetorical style is easily recognizable: They are lying to you, while I have your best interests at heart.
As it turns out, perpetual aggrievement at elites and the corporate profiteering media can be quite lucrative. On Substack, pseudoscience peddler Joseph Mercola touts his “Censored Library” to tens of thousands of paid subscribers at $5/month, revealing “must-read information” that the medical establishment purportedly hides from the public. Several prominent vaccine skeptics — who regularly post about how censored they are — are also high on the Substack leaderboard and in the tens-of-thousands-of-paid-subscribers club.
Matt Taibbi, a longtime journalist who’s also a lead Substack writer, devotes many posts to exposing imaginary cabals for an audience that grew significantly after billionaire Elon Musk gave him access to company emails and other internal documents. His successful newsletter solicited additional contributors: “Freelancers Wanted: Help Knock Out the Mainstream Propaganda Machine.” The patrons of particular bespoke realities reward the writers with page views and subscriber dollars; prominent members of political parties cite the work or move it through the broader partisan media ecosystem.
It is an objectively good thing that the five filter model is increasingly obsolete. Reducing the barriers to ownership, in particular, enabled millions of voices to enter the market and speak to the public, and that is an unambiguously good thing. But the positioning of niche media as a de facto wholesome antithesis to the “mainstream propaganda machine” — Davids fighting Goliaths — is a marketing ploy. The four fire emoji model simply incentivizes a more factional, niche propaganda.
Since the model relies on patronage, rather than advertising, the new propagandists are incentivized to tell their audiences what they want to hear. They are incentivized to increase the fracturing of the public and perpetuate the crisis of trust, in order to ensure that their niche audience continues to pay them, rather than one of their nearest neighbors (or, God forbid, a mainstream outlet). Subscribers don’t have unlimited funds; they will pick a handful of creators to support, and the rest will struggle.
As attention and trust have fragmented, “sourcing” has also reoriented to ensure that writers feature people who are approved within the bespoke reality they target; for example, there are several different universes of COVID experts at this point. “Flak” is now a veritable gift: Rather than being afraid of it, the patronage propagandists are incentivized to court it. Attack from ideological outsiders are a boon: “Subscribe to help us fight back!” So much of the media-of-one content is defined by what it is in opposition to — otherwise, it loses the interest of its audience. Partisan outlets have long played the fear game, as Chomsky pointed out in the 1980s, encouraging hatred of the other side — but now, the “unworthy victim” is your neighbor, who may have only moderately different political leanings.
The Effect: Lost Consensus, Endless Hostility
The devolution of propaganda into niches has deep and troubling implications for democratic society and social cohesion. It was Walter Lippmann, a journalist and early scholar of propaganda, who coined the phrase “the manufacture of consent” of the governed in 1922, using it to describe a process by which leaders and experts worked alongside media to inform the public about topics they did not have the time or capacity to understand. The premise was paternalistic at best.
However, Lippmann also had reservations about the extent to which “the public” existed; the idea of an omnicompetent, informed citizenry powering functional democracy was an illusion, he believed, and the “public” a phantom. People, Lippmann wrote, “live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.” Propaganda was manipulative, even damaging and sinister, Lippmann thought, but he also believed that the manufacture of consent was to some extent necessary for democratic governance, in order to bridge divides that might otherwise render democracy dysfunctional.
Lippmann’s intellectual rival on the topics of propaganda, the public and democracy was the eminent philosopher John Dewey. Unlike Lippmann, Dewey believed “the public” did exist. It was complicated, it was chaotic — but it was no phantom. Dewey also rightly bristled at the idea of a chosen few wielding propaganda to shape public opinion; he saw it as an affront to true democracy. Instead, Dewey saw the press — when operating at its best — as a tool for informing and connecting the public, enabling people to construct a shared reality together.
Though at odds in many respects, both Lippmann and Dewey acknowledged the challenges of a fractured public. The two men saw a dissonant public as both a natural state and as a barrier to a functioning, safe and prosperous society. Though they differed greatly in their proposed approaches, they agreed on the need to create harmony from that dissonance.
One hundred years later, both approaches seem like an impossibility. It is unclear what entities, or media, can bridge a fragmented, polarized, distrustful public. The incentives are driving niche media in the opposite direction.
The propagandists of today are not incentivized to create the overarching hegemonic national narrative that Chomsky and Herman feared. Rather, their incentives drive them to reinforce their faction’s beliefs, often at the expense of others. Delegitimization of outside voices is a core component of their messaging: The “mainstream” media is in cahoots with the government and Big Tech to silence the people, while the media-of-one are independent free-thinkers, a disadvantaged political subclass finally given access to a megaphone … though in many cases, they have larger audiences and far larger incomes. It seems likely that at least some of the audience believes that they have escaped propaganda and exited the Matrix, without realizing that they are simply marinating in a different flavor.
We should not glorify the era of a consolidated handful of media properties translating respectable institutional thinking for the masses — consolidated narrative control enables lies and deception. But rather than entering an age of “global public squares” full of deliberative discourse and constructive conversation, we now have gladiatorial arenas in which participants in niche realities do battle. Our increasingly prominent medias-of-one can’t risk losing the attention game in the weeds of nuance. We have a proliferation of irreconcilable understandings of the world and no way of bridging them. The internet didn’t eliminate the human predilection for authority figures or informed interpretations of facts and narratives — it just democratized the ability to position oneself in the role. The manufacture of consent is thriving within each niche.
“Manufacturing Consent” ended with an optimistic take: that what was then a burgeoning cable media ecosystem would lead to more channels with varying perspectives, a recognition that truly independent and non-corporate media does exist and that it would find ways to be heard. But Chomsky and Herman also cautioned that if the public wants a news media that serves its interests rather than the interests of the powerful, it must go find it. Propaganda systems are demonstrably effective precisely because breaking free of such a filtered lens requires work. Perhaps by articulating to today’s public how the system has shifted and highlighting the new incentives that shape the media-of-one ecosystem, we may reduce the public’s susceptibility to the propaganda it produces.
The illustration above was first published in FORESIGHT Climate & Energy’s Efficiency issue.